Paolo Banchero is done with the talk of his slow start through his first four games. With one 30-point game in Salt Lake City including the go-ahead bucket with 14 seconds to play, Banchero seemed to put those doubts to rest. At least momentarily.
Let the Orlando Magic’s runaway win over the Los Angeles Lakers put the rest to doubt. Let the totality of that performance, where the Magic led by as much as 25 points and hounded and harassed the Lakers throughout a 120-101 victory at the Amway Center on Saturday.
Is this the statement win the Magic are looking for? The opponent is certainly the most marquee one they have faced. It is the first team expected to make the postseason the Magic have defeated.
It is probably too early to say that. But the last matchup between Paolo Banchero and LeBron James with all the hoopla surrounding the league’s all-time leading scorer (at least until the NBA Finals or In-Season Tournament Final), it felt like a major statement.
It felt like a thesis statement for who this team is.
The Orlando Magic continue to build their identity as they had another star performance from Paolo Banchero and continued consistency from the defense they are built on.
They are going to defend and put pressure on you from all corners. They are going to own the paint and put pressure on teams with their size on both ends.
Orlando is forming an identity and the league might officially be on notice. It is not from their superstar player. It is from the defensive attitude and aggression they play with.
"“We don’t look at any other team and don’t think we can’t matchup,” Banchero said after Saturday’s win. “With the size, length, athleticism that we have, there are a lot of teams that are just going to have problems just based off of that. The discipline, the communication that we have on that end, it makes it really hard for anybody. And we know that. We try to make it difficult for guys night in and night out. We’ve been doing a great job of that.”"
It was not a statement for the 25 points Banchero poured in or even the career-high 10 assists he dished out. It was the contributions on the defensive end that mattered so much more. It was his block and seven rebounds. It was all the shots he helped contest and the way this team’s length, speed and size just envelop opponents.
Banchero putting his scoring together has certainly played a role in the Magic suddenly looking so much more spry and potentially so much more dangerous. But the heart of this team remains its defense.
And it was as much the star as Banchero in this game. All of it coming together for a dominant win.
The Magic put in work defensively.
They gave up just 103.1 points per 100 possessions for the game as they continue to establish themselves as one of the top defenses in the league. For the early season, they entered the game second in the league in defensive rating.
Orlando added to that with 19 offensive rebounds that they turned into 36 second-chance points. That is more than enough to put the pressure on any team even one with stars like the Lakers have.
"“Their energy, their effort, they outworked us,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said after Saturday’s game. “And I think because of that energy and effort, they saw the ball go in. They did a great job of just playing fast continuously, covering for one another defensively and just pounding us on the glass.”"
This is who the Magic are. They are a team that aggressively puts pressure on the rim. They use their size and playmaking to catch you in compromising positions and hunt out mismatches to exploit.
They perhaps make just enough threes to keep you honest.
But the statement they really made was all about their defense. They use that same length to break apart defense to completely smother opponents. They get into passing lanes
Banchero provided plenty of highlights along the way. He crossed up LeBron James on a third-quarter possessions
Jalen Suggs provided another highlight that probably better fit the team’s ethos. He outreached Anthony Davis for a rebound, hustling to the loose ball before nutmegging D’Angelo Russell and dishing over to Joe Ingles for an open three.
This is the team’s ethos, one of heart and effort leading to the team sharing the ball for an open basket.
The game was full of highlights like this one. But it came back to that one piece of the team’s identity. Everything comes back to that.
"“Our guys know it and I want everyone to know it, we are going to be a defensive team first,” Mosley said after Saturday’s win. “We’re going to sit down and guard. Whether we’re making shots or missing shots, you’re going to have to see us defensively. That’s who this team has to be night in and night out to give ourselves a chance.”"
Of all the plays the Magic made in Saturday’s game, the one the players kept going back to was a block Goga Bitadze made on Anthony Davis on the first play of the game. That set the tone for the game and was the first of five blocks for Goga Bitadze, making the start for an injured Wendell Carter.
So much of what this Magic team is doing is about that attack mindset. The team wants to put the screws on opponents and be the aggressors. They may be OK with giving up a basket or being temporarily out of position going for a steal because that physical mindset means more than anything else.
The Lakers were able to sneak back into the game cutting the deficit from 25 to 15 thanks to a zone defense. Paolo Banchero said the Magic were thinking a bit too much as they tried to attack it and that represented the only time the offense seemed to slow down.
Banchero said Mosley told the team in the huddle at that moment to attack and not to waver or overanalyze. This has been the best piece of advice for the team. They are always looking to be on the attack.
That is part of this team’s identity. And even down three players — including Carter who will be undergoing surgery to repair a fractured third metacarapal in his left hand — the Magic still played the exact same way. That remains the ideal and is a sign of the trust this team has developed with each other.
The message is to keep defending and building off this stellar start on that end. That is who this team and that is the statement the team continues to make.